Bert Jansch Biography Feature

Published: Irish Times, 1/9/00

Currently hot on the heels of Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash as an individualist icon of 20th Century music – name-dropped as an influence by an increasing array of division one guitar heroes in folk, blues and rock – Bert Jansch is just about as unassuming and low-key as one could possibly be, in any walk of life. The very fact that he can remain something of a mystery man over forty years in the music industry of all places, where look-at-me controversialists and phoney enigmas are the mainstays of marketing success, is a point worthy of interest in itself; allied to an incredible story of rags to riches to alcoholism and obscurity and thence doggedly back to the Indian summer of recent years, where widespread respect and rediscovery are the orders of the day, here is an individual crying out for the microscope of biography.

Several documentary films have explored the seemingly impenetrable workings of Bert Jansch over the years – two in recent times, Acoustic Routes (BBC2, 1993) and Dreamweaver (Channel 4, 2000), presenting a compelling if still slightly mystifying portrait between them. The thing with Jansch is not that he plays games with interviewers, documentarists or indeed biographers, not that he has constructed an idealised myth of his own past (like some of his era most certainly have) nor that he refuses to discuss any aspect of his life and work. No, the problem is that he is at once an open book – utterly without pretension – but a book in which virtually all the pages are either blank or peppered with the merest tantalising fragments of recollection. Quietly but unstoppably driven onwards by creativity and its role in his ‘present’, he remains essentially so unconcerned (‘uninterested’ would not be quite the right word for it) in the past that he is, metaphorically at least, the last person a prospective biographer should turn to for truth and elucidation. And so it proved to be. Thankfully, there would also prove to be no shortage of peers, friends and accomplices willing and able to fill in the gaps.

Jansch has been a regular performing visitor to Ireland over the past ten years, but the first time I encountered his music was, by some surreal quirk of broadcast licensing, circa 1982 – when I would have been fourteen – on a late night Ulster Television repeat of what I would later identify as the last recorded gasp of Bert’s legendary sixties fusion ensemble, the Pentangle, originally broadcast in Belgium, January 4th 1973. This is the kind of obsessive information a dutiful biographer must fill his mind with for the duration of his task  – by the end of which, in my case, a multi-thousand word digest of Bert’s international television appearances alone would be merely one among many groaning appendices wisely sacrificed to the editing process and to the greater good of the casual reader.

In one sense, the work could be said to have taken nearly ten years, although it was more strictly the product of one relentlessly solid year from signing a publishing contract in November 1998 to delivering the manuscript in November 1999 (with a period of preparation before and a period of editing after). I had initially determined to write a biography of Jansch shortly after graduating in modern history in 1989. A bit of self-motivated research and a personal goal to aim for was the perfect antidote, I felt, to what was becoming a cycle of dead-end jobs and spells of unemployment. Over the course of 1991-92 I tracked down and interviewed not only Bert – who generously made himself available, whilst clearly having, at that stage, no personal interest in the project – but also many of those who had worked with him or shared his private life. In retrospect, valuable groundwork was accomplished, but the publishing world would take another few years to come around to the concept of the cult hero as commercial prospect.

Leaving the project on a back-burner I accepted instead lowly, but permanent, employment with a facilities management company. But although work on this magnum opus – or, to put it another way, grandiose folly – had faltered, I continued writing about Jansch in one form or another, having made useful connections during the research process with magazines, newspapers and CD reissue companies. Indeed, my first contribution to the Irish Times was a preview to a Pentangle reunion concert in Dublin in March 1993. The very next month, having realised that my new employment was merely another dead-end job with no prospects and terrible money, I resigned and have followed the more fulfilling if precarious path of a professional writer ever since.

Obviously, I kept in touch with Bert’s career and was delighted when his 1995 album When The Circus Comes To Town was widely perceived to be a renaissance, after more than a decade in the wilderness – much of that time blighted by alcoholism and serious health problems. A new generation of musicians joined old-timers like Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page and Neil Young in citing his influence, while a new generation of music critics had his story to tell and a readership ready to hear it. Essentially the same thing is happening all over again this year, with the June release of his splendid new album Crimson Moon, featuring erstwhile rock gods Johnny Marr and Bernard Butler, coinciding with the UK broadcast of the Dreamweaver documentary – ample opportunity for Bert’s many admirers in the print media to reach, once more, for the book of superlatives and introduce yet another generation to one of the unsung masters.

My own biography of the man, Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British folk and blues revival, published by Bloomsbury on August 21 (with the full co-operation of its subject), sets itself a more complex and ambitious task: to resurrect and explore the web of circumstances and individuals that ultimately allowed for a climate in which someone as offbeat and innovative as Bert Jansch could even make a record in the first place. In between the trad jazz boom of the early fifties and the cultural revolution ushered in by the Beatles a decade later, what is now termed the British ‘folk revival’ arose from the pet concerns of a handful of ethnic record buffs, proto-hippies and left-wing polemicists – Ewan MacColl, Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies, Alex Campbell among them – to become effectively the first, and least chronicled, underground movement of the sixties.

At its height it touched on the lives of millions in Britain – every major town had a choice of folk clubs every night of the week – yet it was a movement inherently destined for the margins. The view at the time was ‘pop is for dancing, folk is for listening’. If a ‘folk’ record was successful, the letters pages of the Melody Maker would be full of earnest young men declaring the artist a fraud and his record a watered-down version of the real thing – which, of course, could only be truly sampled in the increasingly po-faced world of the folk club circuit. Consequently, without chart statistics to back it up, the once ubiquitous ‘folk boom’ is today barely a footnote in pop history. Yet this was the environment which fostered many great names of the subsequent Irish folk revival in the seventies and within which Bert Jansch became a legend – selling out, by the turn of 1967, thousand-seater halls by word-of-mouth alone, with virtually no radio of television exposure to his name. It was at least partly for fear of becoming another Donovan – a prisoner of celebrity – that Jansch opted at that moment for the anonymity of forming a band, the Pentangle. It is perhaps ironic that with the band as his hiding place, he spent the next few years playing the biggest stages of the world, even appearing once on Top Of The Pops, before the whole adventure imploded in a mire of drink, mismanagement and personal crises. The story of the British folk revival is one half of the book, the story of how Bert survived, outlived and transcended it to become an icon is the other.

Colin Harper

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